We need more uke

Jake Shimabukuro—making the world a happier place, four strings at a time

Little uke; big sounds.

Little uke; big sounds.

Photo By Merri Cyr

Chico Performances presents
Jake Shimabukuro, Friday, Sept. 13, 7:30 p.m., at Laxson Auditorium. Tickets: $18-$32. The show kicks off the annual
Chico World Music Festival, which continues with free performances Saturday, Sept. 14, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., on the lawns at Chico State. Visit website for schedule.

Laxson Auditorium
Chico State campus

A funny thing happened to Jake Shimabukuro on the way to making his latest album, last year’s Grand Ukulele. While sitting down to begin working on original material for the project, which was produced by Alan Parsons (best known for his work behind the dials on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon), Shimabukuro was restringing his instrument and realized he was a string short.

“I put the other strings on, and instead of rushing off to find the missing one, I thought, ‘Hmm, it’d be kind of cool if I could play a song with just three strings,’” Shimabukuro said by phone. He was at his home in Hawaii while on break from a continuing tour that will bring him to Chico’s Laxson Auditorium on Friday, Sept. 13, to kick off the Chico World Music Festival.

It was a suitable challenge for the wunderkind who, in less than a decade, has largely redefined what some people thought was possible with the four-stringed, two-octave instrument. Shimabukuro initially grabbed attention when a YouTube video of him performing The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral in 2006, and has since gone on to become the most widely known living ukulelist.

So he’s worked wonders with four strings—but three?

“I started noodling around, wrote that piece, and then called Alan and played it for him,” he said of the song, which became known as “Missing Three.” Parsons told Shimabukuro he could hear a whole orchestra behind it, thus leading to the album’s inclusion of a 29-piece orchestra on some tracks.

“I think it’s funny that the song I wrote with three strings ended up having more than one hundred strings on the track,” Shimabukuro said.

In addition to original compositions, Grand Ukulele features a handful of covers, most interestingly Shimabukuro’s fleet-fingered solo take on British singer Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” Applying the ukulele’s singular sound to contemporary and classic hits, sans any sense of schlock, is one of the maestro’s favorite maneuvers, as it opens the door to legions of potential ukulele lovers.

Shimabukuro exercised this ukulele ambassadorship beautifully at a 2010 TED event, in which the only spoken part of his address was, “Aloha. Today I’m going to try to convince you that what the world needs now is ukulele. This is the underdog of all instruments, and I’ve always believed it is the instrument of peace, because if everyone played the ukulele, this world would be a much happier place.”

He then stunned the audience with a nearly six-minute, note-for-note instrumental rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

“I love seeing artists take the ukulele and incorporate it into pop music and songs you hear on the radio,” he said, citing Train’s mega-hit “Soul Sister,” Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder’s uke-centric solo work and Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo‘ole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as examples. He also noted that Paul McCartney (whose fellow Beatle the late George Harrison was an avid ukulelephile) recently began playing ukes on recordings and on stage.

“Things like that make the ukulele accessible to a lot of people and it changes the perception of the instrument, so I really admire and appreciate that,” he said.

Shimabukuro continues to suggest that fans pick up ukuleles themselves; though he’s been playing since the age of 4 and has some specialized ukulele schooling, he feels the relatively simple learning curve makes the instrument accessible to all. He said he tried playing drums and dabbled a little on guitar in high school, but ultimately, the ukulele is what grabbed him and kept hanging on.

“If you have a favorite song, learn it just like the version that you love,” he suggested to beginners. “Then play along to the recording—it’s a lot of fun and you can learn a lot that way.”